Precision, stealth and the cold steel of a blade. These are the marks of the ninja. No series has exemplified the brutality of murder at the hands of a shadowy assassin better than Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden. Steeped in blood and mysticism, these titles have challenged gamers with nuanced move sets, varied weapons and crushing difficulty. It is for those reasons that it is nearly impossible for Ninja Gaiden 3 to not disappoint fans.

Timed combos have been replaced by button mashing. Clever use of moves to decapitate enemies are now gone, with timed button press quicktime events (QTEs) in their place. Investments in weapon refinement are simply gone, and Ninpo magic is no longer a precious resource. It’s now based on a meter. Everything about Ninja Gaiden 3 is an enormous departure from what made the series great. While it is still worth a play through if you want to feel like a Dynasty Warriors-style badass, mowing down countless identical enemies in an enormous bloodbath, it isn’t anywhere near the experience fans expect.

From my introduction, you might think that there are no redeeming values to the game, and that would be a mistake. While it feels nothing like a Ninja Gaiden game, Team Ninja has managed to deliver a gorgeous, cinematic experience. The quick angles, the bravado of soldiers as they first enter the fray (quickly replaced by pleas for mercy) and the persistent blood on the clothing of your foes which marks enemies as near death all create a popcorn-movie style atmosphere. Were it not for Hayabusa’s history, it might be easier to be kind to Ninja Gaiden 3.

Lots of blood...

The story opens up with Ryu summoned to London as terrorists have taken hostage a key government official. Team Ninja has spent the money on higher quality voice actors, including Troy Baker (Bioshock: Infinite, The Last of Us, Batman: Arkham City) as Ryu, Ali Hillis (Mass Effect 3, Kid Icarus: Uprising) as Mizuki McCloud and Paul Eiding (Metal Gear Solid) as Muramasa. The writing is far less hokey, and the presentation manages to walk the line between grounded and over-the-top. Despite how jarring the change in game play is, Team Ninja deserves kudos for raising the bar on presentation.

As the story progresses, Hayabusa is cursed, embedding the Dragon Sword and the souls of its countless victims in his arm. The effect of Ryu fighting his arm at various points throughout the game, while scripted, is extremely well animated. It would have been interesting to see this used as a mechanic rather than a plot device, especially since so much of the combat system is stripped down.

Ryu's Ultimate Technique is one of the flashiest, bloodiest moves.

 

As mentioned earlier, this latest entry in the storied Ninja Gaiden series is a shell of its former self. In past games, the familiar orb system (red for Ninpo, blue for health, yellow for currency) was used to drive progress. Different enemies could be made to drop health orbs with specific attacks, and building combos to reap as many of the precious yellows was key to remaining competitive later in the game. In Ninja Gaiden 3, there are no shops, health automatically replenishes after each combat encounter and Ninpo, as stated earlier, is handled by a meter rather than a finite supply. There is no inventory, no weapons beyond your sword and bow, and no way to enhance your skills with scrolls. The fact that the game includes the shop music from earlier titles is more taunt than tease.

Combat, which often involves a dozen foes, regularly feels loose and random. There are specific moves with different button combinations, but you simply won’t need them. In previous titles, button mashing meant your fast and bloody death. Here, it’s a completely viable strategy. It’s not to say that there isn’t enjoyment in it, but those looking for a strategic and cerebral experience will find the title lacking. Occasionally, you will be asked to wall jump, wall run or kunai climb up a surface. With the exception of the latter, these are all fluid and easy to accomplish.

The wall climbing and rope climbing grew tedious quickly. In order to scale a sheer surface, you must first run up as far as you can with the A button, then depress both triggers to dig your kunai in, then alternate Left and Right triggers to climb. While this, by itself, is merely annoying, having to face an enemy shooting down at you, throwing at least one more button into the mix, resulted in a fall to the bottom many times. I can only imagine that Team Ninja was taking a page out of the Heavy Rain playbook, but the game would have been better without this mechanic.

Spider Clan ninjas make a return.

In addition to the single player campaign, Ninja Gaiden 3 brings back the Ninja Trials. These brief battles place you in the different regions throughout the world traversed during the story. You’ll take on a variety of enemies, clearing out the surroundings and fulfilling “contracts.” These task you with objectives like hitting an enemy with a shuriken before taking him out or annihilating a foe with a “steel on bone” attack. The latter are single-button timed attacks that occur when you clash. These award bonus Karma, which serves as experience. As you level up, you’ll earn aesthetic customization options and new skills for use during trials and the game’s multiplayer mode.

When you take your game online, you’ll be able to join friends to take on Ninja Trials or square off in 8-man Clan Battles. The competitive multiplayer mode features both Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch in compact arenas. Unlike the single player offering, shuriken and arrows are in short supply. Ninpo is handled different, with a more focused attack rather than a full screen wipe. It does some interesting things, like allowing you to remain invisible (except for a shimmer) when moving slowly, and fight off steel-on-bone attacks by button mashing, but it isn’t terribly engaging. Nothing about the competitive modes are terribly innovative, and didn’t manage to hold my attention. As you level up, you’ll gain access to Ultimate Techniques and your Ninpo will level up. In order to remain competitive, it’s a good idea to grind through some of the Ninja Trials to enhance your skills before taking on human opponents.

As already mentioned, Ninja Gaiden 3 is a very attractive game. The varied environments, like the streets of London, the sands of the Rub’ al Khali Desert  and the jungles of the Maldives are all distinct and lush. The detail on Ryu’s ninja attire, the blood dripping from wounded soldiers and the smoke and flame are all visually impressive. There is a gorgeous coat of paint hiding a very thin and flimsy game play experience.

That looks... uncomfortable.

The audio, which starts out quite strong, grows tiresome partway through the first level. The soldiers repeat the same taunts and pleas, just with different accents depending on where you are fighting. The sounds of steel clashing, rockets exploding and helicopters swooping in for the kill are all deep and make an aural impact. As mentioned previously, Team Ninja invested more in the voice acting and it is appreciated.

Ninja Gaiden 3 isn’t the game that fans wanted. It is an enormous misstep for the storied franchise, and it’s hard not to link it to Tomonobu Itagaki’s departure from Team Ninja. There are redeeming qualities in the game, but it’s hard to imagine it inspiring the kind of replay that previous titles warranted. Whereas Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden 2 were about honing skills, learning enemy traits and surviving against all odds, Ninja Gaiden 3 goes too far in making you feel like an unstoppable whirlwind of steel and murder.  The lower difficulty diminishes the necessity for “Hero Mode,” which assists players with blocks and dodges, and can only leave those that crave punishment out in the cold. Let’s hope that the next time out for Ryu Hayabusa is a bit more balanced.

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Visually impressive with cinematic qualities
+ Interesting story
+ The blood flows freely…
- … but where are the decapitations and dismemberments
- Shallow combat, with little emphasis on skill
- No character progression or weapon enhancements
- Multiplayer is a throwaway

6 and 6.5 represent a game that doesn’t do anything spectacular or drastically fails to meet the high expectations people had for it. These scores are for games that you would only recommend to diehard fans of the series or genre, something that the average gamer wouldn’t miss very much if he/she skipped it. A game in this range has rental written all over it. 

Ninja Gaiden 3 was developed by Team Ninja and published by Tecmo Koei. It was released on March 20, 2012 at the MSRP of $59.99. A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.

 

Michael Futter is the Managing Editor of @RipTen. You can follow him on Twitter @mmmfutter.